Looking West back towards Burra on the Morgan Road, South Australia

The Beginning

January 29 2006

We are using the New Revised Standard Version.
Mark is generally accepted as being the first of the gospels. It is not the first Christian writing we have; that comes from Paul.

Mark begins with these words:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Jesus is clearly identified as "good news", something we ought to remember when we feel the church weighing us down, and being anything but good news.

I think he is talking about "good news" in a wholistic, even cosmic, sense. We are talking about more than winning back the Ashes here! At a very deep level he is claiming this Jesus Christ is good for us. I am reminded of a young pregnant woman I saw on the train recently. One hand rested over the child who is to be born, and the other supported her belly. The words "utter complacency" came to mind. A complacency rooted in peacefulness and promise. That's what "good news" should be.

Mark calls Jesus Christ. That is the Greek word. It translates the word Messiah, one chosen and anointed by God. Jesus is not only Christ, chosen and anointed, as was David the Great King in the stories of the past, but God's Son. This has echoes of the Psalms where the king was recognized as "God's son". (See Psalm 2 for example) It is a claim of inheritance, of authority, and of power. God's son speaks for God. It is no wonder that the gospels spend so much time repudiating the image of Jesus as the conquering warrior Messiah- Son of God would have reeked of the idea!

In the second verse Mark plants himself, and Jesus, firmly in the traditions of Israel:
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;"
This is not a new religion. This is fulfilment.

The next- words should speak to we Australians. We are a desert seeking people. As city dwellers [the great majority of us) we have a passion for the "outback." Even our stupid passion for 4WDs bears witness to this. Uluru is the Australian pilgrimage. In their great generosity, the Pitjantjatjara elders and guardians let as climb the Rock. On the Rock, Australians are different. For every yob who yells, there is a silent, moved, spiritually touched person. ...the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord,"

The desert is where we hear the voice of God. It is or the long drives across the Hay Plain, or into Alice Springs, and around the camp fires, that even men talk about faith and belief.

We might now jump to verse 6 where it says Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey....

This also puts John the Baptiser in context. He is in the mould of the Old Testament Prophet- and this later allows him to be interpreted as Elijah, who must come before the Messiah. But it is also a word to us. The desert is the place of simplicity- we will hear no God if we take our generator, and TV, and DVDs along with us. John's power comes out of solitude and contemplation. That hot silence that pushes down and in upon us when we are in the wilderness.... where we are cowed by the vastness... that is the source of the voice of God.

...make his paths straight,' 4 John the baptiser appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

These next verses begin our education about the content of "good news": Jesus bona fides have been laid out, so now we are down to business.

Jerusalem is the seat of power. It is the site of the temple, it is the centre of the promised land. Authority and authenticity are from here. So too, in Australia, we have a seat of power, based around Canberra, the media, and business. They seek to present to us what is right and meaningful. The churches have largely lost their place at this table and are mostly respected, if at all, for being more efficient channels for government welfare benefits than the government's own agencies.

The gospel calls us to repudiate this if we want the "good news." To begin with, John is not in Jerusalem, he is in the wilderness, seeking a new voice of God. This itself, is good news for those of us who feel we are in the wilderness. Perhaps we are in the right place to find God. A new vision of God does not come from the seat of power.

Then Mark clearly relates the good news to two historical memories.
...make his paths straight, is a direct reference to the Exile in Babylon. In second Isaiah there is the promise of return to the Promised Land.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.... Isaiah 40

There is the implication of return from an Exile. Jerusalem is exile. We are not in the Promised Land. The second historical reference is that the River Jordan was the place of entry into the Promised Land. It was the place Israel came when it returned home after centuries of slavery in Egypt. The good news is subversive of the status quo. To receive the good news we have to go out from Jerusalem and return to our roots. This is the beginning of repentance.

4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Baptism is a loaded word is the church. There are millennia of history attached to it. Thee some is true of repentance."

In Mark, I see John's baptism as a sign, as a way of saying "I repent. '" I am coming back to the source of my identity as one of Gods people and I am beginning again. The act of repentance is more important than the exact way it was signified. It could have been done with sackcloth and ashes. The water and the act no intrinsic have power. They are not magic which will move God. They signify to John's audience, a decision to act and move and change.

John's offering of baptism is itself subversive. They happen outside Jerusalem. They are for forgiveness of sins outside of the boundaries of the ruling cult. He had no authority for this. He was saying Jerusalem was wrong.

The big word in all of this is "repentance. We have a tendency to so repentance as meaning to be sorry.. It is not. The root Greek word is metanoia, which has the sense of complete change. We use it of the immature form turning into the butterfly: metamorphosis. So it is not enough to be sorry. A complete change is being called for. In fact, many of the liturgies say, "We repent, and are sorry for our sins:. It would be difficult to repent of something and not be sorry. But we could say "I'm sorry, but I'm going to do it again," and here is a world of difference. The abusive spouse who is sorry after the event, but makes no real attempt to change, has never repented.

John's baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. The people going out to him were confessing their sins. Repentance involves an admission of shortcomings, and of guilt. we cannot repent of something, or be forgiven if we are not honest enough to own up to it.

What does forgiveness of sins mean ? There are times we simply don't measure up to what is the good. We can think of the good as what God wants. Less religiously, we could call it our failure to be complete. There is a line in Ephesians (5:48) which says Be ye perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect. The word perfect is troublesome, but has an appropriate weight for the demand. We should understand it as complete (the Greek root is teleos) and I think it is complete according to our circumstances; what I understood as good and complete- and God's will- when I was twenty is now, I see, actually not good enough. There is more I can be and do. I suppose, technically, there is an absolute standard of human completeness. The church, especially in its more conservative forms, is terrified of relativism. But practically, we cannot know that standard, but only live towards it. Discipleship is growing into greater wholeness and completeness as a person. Where completeness is closely defined, beyond generalities, and where it is enforced, then it becomes another sin: judgementalism. Strict moral codes with no give and slack are someone's idea, not God's idea. So perhaps we just haven't measured up to what we know, and believe, is right. Sometimes we may have acted in ignorance. But there are also many times where we know what is good, and choose to do what is not good.

One of the areas where sin is poorly understood is the notion that the good is defined by Jerusalem's elite: if Mr. Howard does it according to the law of the land then it is not sin. But John and Jesus, the whole Gospel in fact, begins with a discussion of Sin outside Jerusalem. The gospel says of its very beginning that Jerusalem is wrong about sin. My "civic'' upbringing, what I was taught at school about being a good boy, a good citizen, and being respectful of the law was not the gospel. We see this problem over and over when bible study participants read and talk about justice and compassion, and agree, but then pull back when they realise this will have them criticising Mr. Howard. (On the other hand total cynicism towards Jerusalem and the civil authorities is not the answer: seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf.... Jeremiah)

Sin is also not just personal piety. Sin is about corporate behaviour. Sin can be committed against the earth. Sin is global. The fact that I did not steal or cheat on my taxes does not make owning a gas-guzzling V8 4WD in the suburbs any less a sin. My ownership of this has implications for the earth, and for the people who I am not able to help because I need to buy all that petrol.

Finally, what is forgiveness? Forgiveness is freedom to start again, freedom to keep going, freedom to still speak and act even though I was wrong before. Even freedom to repair and make reparation, and heal and be healed. It is freedom to go on.

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


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